🔮 How populism and nativism matter for minorities

Dragana Svraka investigates the link between populism and nativism in politics today. She focuses on the societal divisions at the centre of these concepts, and the threat to minorities who populists cast as 'outsiders'

In their inaugural blog for this series, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti identify nativism as one of the 'true pillars of populist radical-right ideology'. Other contributors, including Stijn van Kessel, have examined nativism in more detail. Here, I explore the exclusionary potential of nativism, focusing on how populism can help to articulate it.

Society divided

Populism and nativism share a vision of society that we can essentially divide into two large opposing groups. Scholars of populism, from Margaret Canovan to Cas Mudde, emphasise societal division into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the 'pure people' and the 'corrupt elite'. Nativism rests on a division between the native group (the nation) and 'non-native elements' living in the same state.

These divisions are relatively vague, so populist and nativist politicians can define opposing groups to fit their political messages. Populist ideology is thin, malleable, and not necessarily exclusionary. The exclusionary variety of populism is dominant in contemporary Europe. European populist radical-right parties tend to merge the notion of the pure people with native people. In so doing, they combine the thin ideology of populism with thicker nativism. Their vision of a divided society presents certain groups as outsiders and potential enemies of 'the ordinary man'. According to the definition of populism, those outsiders are corrupt elites.

Nativism rests on a division between the native group (the nation) and 'non-native elements' living in the same state

Today's populist radical-right parties often manoeuvre themselves into positions of political power. This undermines their self-presentation as outsiders or underdogs, since voters increasingly see them as 'normal parties'. Therefore, such parties' anti-elite credentials are becoming difficult to sustain. A focus on minorities (clearly identified as different), provides an easy counterpart to the 'common people' these parties claim to represent.

How does populism align with the nativism of radical-right parties in Europe? There are three ways in which these parties merge populism and nativism, providing simple and appealing messages for their potential voters.

Exclusionary potential

My own research recognises that the nativism of populist radical-right parties does not target all minorities equally. I aim to understand what makes some minorities more likely to be excluded by the use of nativist messages. In their rhetoric, populist radical-right parties often equate 'the pure people' with 'our people', defined as the ethnic majority. They then cast certain minorities as essentially alien and threatening to the imagined community of a nation state. My research finds that minorities more distinctive in race, religion, and language make good scapegoats for nativist radical-right parties.

Populist radical-right parties often equate 'the pure people' with the ethnic majority. They then cast certain minorities as threatening to the imagined community of a nation state

Populism and nativism provide a similar vision of a divided society. Both allow the labelling of whole groups as threatening outsiders. Former US president Trump equating Mexican immigrants with rapists is an extreme yet well-known example of the use of such exclusionary language applied to a whole minority group.

Populist and nativist tropes rely on easy identification of outsiders as those who are clearly different from 'us'. The label of outsider implicitly justifies their exclusion from politics or society. The minorities identified as outsiders are at higher risk of being targeted in ways that can escalate to hate speech or even physical violence.

Communication style

Populist politicians aim to present themselves as the voice of the common people. They occasionally use hostile and xenophobic messages, justifying them as a rejection of 'elitist' political correctness. Hans-Georg Betz’s research reveals a symbiotic relationship between nativism and populism. The 'corrupt elites', he says, are often presented as supporters of minorities, immigrants, or foreign actors, thus working against the interests of common native citizens.

Typical nativist messages claim immigrants are 'taking jobs from natives', claiming more than their fair share of welfare, and generally threatening majority culture

Nativist messages can sow division based on economic arguments (claiming that immigrants are taking jobs from native citizens), welfare chauvinism (arguing that minorities get more welfare than is their fair share), or symbolic divisions (presenting one’s own majority culture as being under threat from increased diversity which is more visible thanks to accommodating elites). These messages simplify key societal problems, implying that – in the event of the necessary political support – a quick solution could be found.

Social media

Social media plays an important role in amplifying populist messages, as Laura Jacobs explains in this series. It allows populists to avoid gatekeeping, which is associated with traditional media. Lack of gatekeeping makes it more straightforward to target specific groups, such as minorities and immigrants. There is no easy way to police posts online, and social media doesn’t have a good record in removing content, even when it includes extreme nativist hate speech.

A direct style of communication through social media resonates with the people-centric view of politics typical of populism. Populist and nativist messages spread easily through social media. They rely on simplifications and emotional appeals rather than policy-centred arguments about politics. Jakob Schwörer shows that populist radical-right parties tend to keep their antagonistic style of communication through social media, even after they attain positions of power.

Minorities in danger

The world-visions of populism and nativism are compatible: both rest on a simplified distinction between us and them. Rather than protecting minority views and minorities, both argue for a majoritarian vision of democracy designed to protect the common native man.

While they are not necessarily anti-democratic, the rise of nativism and populism in Europe (and elsewhere) has placed minorities, especially those who are more visible, in a more precarious position than they were previously. We live in a world characterised by diversity. We thus need to work to protect the groups most endangered by these political developments.

No.58 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Dragana Svraka
Dragana Svraka
Managing Editor, American Political Science Review (American Political Science Association)

Dragana gained her PhD at the University of Florida in 2020.

She studies ethnic diversity in contemporary Europe and how states manage such diversity.

She has recently published on the nativism of radical-right parties in Europe.


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